Interview with Yeasayer
Having once described their music as ‘Middle Eastern psych-snap-gospel’, Brooklyn-based Yeasayer have always been ones to embrace variety. Now on the verge of releasing their third studio album, Chris Keating, Ira Wolf Tuton and Anand Wilder, although ostensibly a little poppier, are still pushing the limits of experimentation. Their sound has been adapted, their independence maintained, and as a result their music continues to be captivating. Yeasayer fill your heads with en vogue sonics and psychedelic vignettes, and by laughing in the face of mainstream media they’re finally getting the recognition they deserve. We chatted to Chris about the new record, the bleak state of modern America, and their forthcoming appearance at Latitude Festival 2012…
Hi Chris, how are you?
I’m alright. I’m in Nashville right now.
You’re touring aren’t you?
Yeah, we’re on tour, we’re doing a little thing to get ready for Latitude man.
Just a warm-up then, nothing too big?
Yeah it’s pretty small, pretty fun though. We did Knoxville Tennessee last night, we’re doing some southern places, some places we haven’t been before, Nashville we’ve been to before, but it’s a cool town.
Is it going well?
Yeah it’s going well, it’s pretty mellow. It’s not like full tilt touring; it’s pretty casual, not too long drives, pretty relaxed. It’s super hot here down in the south, in all of July it gets really toasty.
Quite the opposite from the British summer then. You’re playing with new band members, how’s that working out.
It’s just one new dude actually, there’s us three guys that have been doing it the whole time, Anand, Ira and myself, and then Cale Parks is our new drummer; he’s holding down percussion and drumming and doing a whirlwind.
What happened with (old drummer) Luke Fasano?
Well Luke’s been out of the band for four years now, he only played on our first album, and he’s doing his own thing. We’ve had a couple other guys playing with us and one of those guys is about to put out his own album, he’s called Sinkane, and he’ll probably be over in the UK some point touring with his band which is pretty cool.
You’ve mentioned in various places that you’re reworking older material into your new set?
Yeah we change stuff around all the time. It’s funny, we’ll play like 30 seconds of a song before anybody realises the song that they’re hearing. It’s not a drastic change, we’re not turning it into ambient music, we just structure it in a different way that makes is more exciting for us.
To keep it interesting…
Yeah, I always like it when bands do that, not water it down, but flip the song a little bit
Are you playing new material on this tour?
Yeah we’ve been playing the whole album, and some B-sides, it’s pretty crazy.
Have you had a good reaction?
I think it’s pretty good, it’s hard to say. We’ve only played these songs three times in front of people, this will only be our fourth show having rehearsed everything, but the reactions have been really positive so far.
You’ve had mixed reviews online; some love the new material, some hate it, how does that make you feel?
Oh yeah, I mean I don’t give a fuck what people say online, there’s so much shit-talking, but that excites me that half the people wouldn’t like it and half the people are excited, that’s much better than a lukewarm reaction. To me it’s the most exciting stuff that we’ve done, it’s very in line with the way I’ve always wanted to make music, it’s bridging the gap between my interest in soul music and psychedelic music. We’ve tried very hard over the past few years to walk a line between different genres and to mix analogue and digital technology, and I think finally we’re finding that place. Hopefully people who understood what we were all about in the first place can appreciate that, and if not then that’s tough [laughs].
Odd Blood (2010) moved you somewhat into the mainstream psyche – new track Longevity was recently named Zane Lowe’s Hottest Record for example – whereas something like Sunrise (from All Hour Cymbals (2007)) wasn’t even considered.
I don’t even know why it wasn’t, I think that song in particular [Sunrise] is a really accessible and simply written track, I just think that when a band first starts out if they’re worth their salt it takes them a while to get attention. I don’t really trust any of these bands that have attention from the start, especially when it’s from mainstream media; it feels like such a flash in the pan, it’s a lake that’s three miles wide but only an inch deep. It’s fine for me if there’s a certain amount of mainstream attention now, because we’ve never gone to any means to sell out or try to placate the mainstream media culture, we just make what we like and hope other people like it too. I think the more people that can hear it the better, so something like being on mainstream radio is a positive thing, as long as I don’t have to have a song that’s produced by David Guetta [laughs] you know what I mean!? I don’t want to have to adopt a sound that is supposed to be hip to sell records; we don’t sell many records, we’re not playing stadiums, we can literally do whatever we want.
Your song O.N.E featured on the FIFA 2011 soundtrack, how did that come about?
Well we send CDs to all the videogame companies and they came to us at some point, I dunno, I haven’t even seen it on that game. I like that video games are adding more and more sophisticated music though, they’re allowing younger kids access to a world of music that they wouldn’t necessarily have found otherwise. Rockstar Games had HEALTH write a soundtrack [for Max Payne 3] and it’s kind of a strange combination of ideas but at the same time it’s perfect in a way. HEALTH is a really interesting band that makes really cinematic music and they’re embracing a technology that is actually getting out there as opposed to just trying to make noise music or make CDs or whatever.
Some people might see having a song on a video game as selling out, but then if your music is getting to more people what’s the harm?
Exactly. I mean there are more avenues now, so people’s access to music is much greater, but at the same time it’s becoming more difficult as a musician to make a living. I think it’s an interesting hybrid of technology. I’m not a retroist in any way, I don’t think we should be just trying to get our music out on 7 inch vinyl, I want to get it out there in different ways to do exactly what you’re saying; to influence and turn people on to some new stuff. Hopefully some 12-year-old kid heard that [O.N.E. on FIFA] and thought, “This is kind of cool.”
Buying physical records is a dying art, it’s no longer cost effective, which is such a shame, but that’s also why I love your band so much, because you still produce videos and art work and make it more immersive than just the music.
Yeah, I think trying to embrace YouTube and the Internet to put out music is an interesting way to do it. I mean I love the way old records look and I love doing the artwork for them, it’s a nice object, but you can’t just limit yourself to that, you have to put yourself into the YouTube generation now.
Do you do the artwork personally?
I did the artwork for the first album, one of my best friends did the second album, and then the third one is another guy who I’m friends with, so we keep it pretty tight knit. We’re heavily involved with people that I’m close with and have met over the years, so we kind of keep it like a family in that way.
You’ve almost become an art collective rather than just a band then?
Growing up that always seemed like the coolest thing. When I was thinking about what it was like to be in a band, or what it’d be like to be a film director, basically what you get to do if you have the budget is call up your favourite artists or your favourite photographer, or people who do stage design and lighting design and meet up and talk about what you could do. I called up one of my favourite sculptors recently and we might be doing a project with him and it’s awesome that that’s even possible; that guy’s in the fine art world, he’s not into music and we’re talking about doing something, it’ll be pretty fun.
One of my favourite things was your La Blogotheque Takeaway show, which again adds to the depth of your band.
Yeah it turned out great I think, you got to see behind the scenes of the experience for sure, it was an exciting thing to do.
So would I be correct in thinking you’re carrying on the projection of the past to albums and are going more electronic on this record?
Erm, yes and no, I don’t really know. I mean the first album was honestly not fully analogue or organic, we used a lot of samples and synths, I think there was a certain kind of rootsy, folk quality that we were trying to reference but not necessarily trying to fully embrace. People thought we were jamming around a campfire with some banjos or something, but we were actually sampling the banjos. The new album is a nice mix of analogue technology and broken, cool drum machines and also new software type stuff; it’s kind of all over the place but to me it’s the most exciting thing we’ve done.
You recorded and self-produced this record didn’t you?
Yeah, I mean we worked with a couple different engineers, but we produced it all ourselves. We actually ended up mixing the album with Dan Carey in South London.
It must be good to release something that you know you haven’t had to compromise over?
Yeah, we don’t really have any labels coming in, or any A&R people telling us what to do ever. They don’t even tell us their opinion half the time, we just do what we want, give it to them, and they’re like, “That’s cool.” One of the fortunate things about being on an independent label is getting to play the music that you like, and nobody really talks about how it’s going to sell, they probably talk about it behind closed doors, but they never bring it up with us.
There’s nobody coming up to you just after you’ve finished a record saying, “Yeah, you’re going to have to rewrite all of that ‘cause it won’t sell any records”…
Yeah exactly, I’ve been in rooms with other people I know who are on major labels and that’s happened. It’s one of the biggest things we were scared of, having some random A&R person saying, “You need to shorten the chorus” or “Do that this way”, it just sounds like a fucking nightmare.
There are some interesting titles on the next record; Fragrant World is pretty evocative, can you tell me about the themes of the album, if there are any?
I think the new album has a little more of a dystopian, anti-authoritarian feel to it. I think the second album was like our love record or something, and then the newest one, well, we’ve kind of witnessed the birth of this really ugly underbelly in America, with this whole tea-party nonsense and the rebirth of really disgusting, bleak, pro-business and also very anti-human nonsense that’s kind of pervasive right now. That couldn’t help but influence some of the song-writing, it’s not necessarily a completely political record, but that environment did influence the writing of it.
It’s kind of hard to ignore.
Right. Some people are able to write in a bubble and ignore stuff, but it always seems to affect me, like what I read in the news or what I read in a magazine or something will always make it into the lyrics.
Is that how you write songs more often than not then?
Yeah. I like the whole idea of A Day In The Life by The Beatles, I thought that was such an inspirational story, where they took all these news items and chopped them together for this song. Overall it gives this crazy feeling and you don’t know what they’re talking about.
Some lyrics on your first record were quite difficult to decipher, but that was one of the charms of it, the bridge in 2080 is almost nonsensical, how did you come up with something like that?
[Chris shouts “Hey Ira, how’d you write the bridge in 2080?” to bassist Ira Tuton, who is apparently also in the room] Ira say’s he just ‘lets his stream of consciousness run’. It’s bullshit, complete bullshit! [laughs] Ira’s in the middle of doing pull ups right now; he likes to keep it nice and tight [laughs] Can that be the headline of the article? - ‘Ira Turton keeps it real tight.’ [laughs]
Aha, yes it can. So is this album going to sound more desolate?
Ah I dunno man, you’ll have to tell me. When people hear it they’ll probably find all sort of hidden meanings in everything. I dunno, it’s a little more bleak, there are certainly more songs in minor keys and there’s more dissonance; we were trying to do a dissonant record that was still accessible. A lot of the songs have kind of bizarre, slightly unnerving cinematic sounds and textures, and that was one of the things that was exciting about making this record. It was very much made in a city, we made the record in Brooklyn and in London, for the last one we escaped the city and went up to Woodstock, which is a very peaceful and idyllic community, but this was made in a city and it feels like it.
So who’s Henrietta, is that song named after someone you know?
No, that’s a song that was inspired by the story of this woman I read about named Henrietta Lacks. It’s kind of a long story but basically she died of a nasty, really intense cancer, but the cells from her body were kind of kept living and were used as raw human genetic material. I’m sort of simplifying this story and doing a bad job of telling it, you should look it up, but yeah, her genetic material was used as the basis for all kinds of medical tests over the last half century. It’s kind of this insane story and when I heard it I was really moved by it. The book’s called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and the woman was from Baltimore, which is my hometown, and I just found it to be quite inspirational. The song’s not a literal interpretation of the story necessarily, it’s just very evocative of that mood.
One of the lines in new track Longevity is “Live in the moment/Never count on longevity/Please” – is that how you feel about life?
Well I tend to be a bit of a worrier, I have this Larry David/Woody Allen sort of thing going on, or at least that’s what my lady says, and so that song is more from her perspective; it’s about travelling around the world with someone you love and them kind of easing your paranoia. That and cunnilingus in the jungle; that can be the title of the article too if you’d like [laughs].
Aha, the subtitle maybe?
So are you looking forward to Latitude, you played there two years ago?
Oh man, yeah, that was a great one. Some festivals are terrible; where teenagers are just messed up out of their heads, it can be really dark and gross to see all of these young kids just puking, covered in mud. But then there are some festivals that are just so beautiful and it’s a great experience. That felt like a festival where there was a real community of musicians hanging out, and there was theatre, and sheep that were painted different colours and fucking kids running around with bubbles; it was like a Renaissance festival mixed with a music festival and a rave in the woods or something, we had a good time, a really good time.
Latitude is great because it appeals to a larger crowd than those festivals that seem strictly reserved for 18 year olds who want to get wasted.
Yeah, it’s kind of for parents who want to get wasted, but not obliterated [laughs]. Like, they’ll only take a little bit of ecstasy…
Have you got any expectation for the British audience?
They’re a good crowd in the UK definitely. I think there’s a high expectation when you play in the UK because of the great legacy of music, so it’s always fun to try and live up to that.
Do you prefer festivals of your own shows?
I think our own shows are probably preferable; it’s easier because you’re playing to your own fans and people who have bought a ticket to see you, whereas with a festival you have to try and win over some new people. It depends on the festival and depends on the show, it’s a completely different experience. Right now I haven’t played a festival in a long time, like a year and a half or something, so I’m looking forward to it, but when you’re playing only festivals over summer you can’t wait to get back in a small club.
It must be good for bands like yours, who haven’t got to the huge arenas yet, to get back into smaller venues with your hardcore fans?
Yeah, we’re going to do some really, really small shows to complement the larger ones we’re doing later in the year. They’ll be good for us and a really great experience for the fans.
So what’s next for Yeasayer?
I don’t know what’s next man, right now we’ve just got more touring and are looking forward to playing in places where we’ve never been.